My maternal grandfather was not supposed to die this way. Or, at least it did not feel fair at all. It was on Sunday, March 20, 1994. He was 61 years old. I was three months away from entering my teens. He was a happy, contented man who played out his entire career since graduation at the Reserve Bank of India until he had retired in 1990. He had this thing for longevity I thought – employed at one employer for over 35 years. He met with his one best friend every day for nearly 50 years. (They were best friends since middle school.) He was married to a wonderful woman for nearly 40 years. He absolutely adored his two daughters – was a mature, steadying influence for his older daughter (my Mom) and was a pampering, doting dad to my Chithi, his kadaikutty. And alas, thanks to a freak car accident that occurred 22 years ago, I have been bereft ever since of not only the longevity of relationship that others enjoyed but also the kind of affection, sense of security, stability and just that feeling that he was there for you. But given his sunny disposition and uncomplaining personality, I would not do justice to him with this tribute if I didn’t sound more positive. So, let me try harder.
In my write up on Dr. Sheena Iyengar, I had captured the line that she wrote me when she signed a copy of her book for me – “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.” It’s a lovely, succinct line that captures the benefit of focusing on just a small set of core values and the resultant choices that lend a certain sense of purpose and define a person’s character. And this focus allows one to fully relish the joy of living which can be derived from everyday minutiae. That is exactly how my Thatha lived his life. He had a few core traits such as undemonstrative (yet undeniable) love towards his family, firm loyalty towards his best friend, unwavering honesty and financial prudence. These were the things about which he was fiercely protective and inflexible in many ways. But he developed a set of comforting routines that marked his laidback lifestyle. And, he used these predictable rhythms to ensure that he had the space and time to enjoy the everyday minutiae that I wrote about. For instance, he liked his job at RBI. But to him, it was a way to bring food to the table. He was more interested in having the actual food at the table with his family. An image of his that I remember vividly is that of him helping himself to a small kinni (cup) of steaming hot potato curry off the stove before eating his dinner just to enjoy the spice of the curry by itself. He equally enjoyed his idlis at Rayar’s café as he did a sambar vada at Savera. I have had the pleasure of his company at both sorts of places and I can safely say that what mattered to him was having a place to enjoy good food and hearty laughs. In fact, he brought in a people element to everything he did, be it movie nights, long car drives or walks at the Marina beach. As they say, the biggest gift that you can give your loved ones is your time. And, he ensured that all his loved ones were the recipients of his largesse.
One of the defining relationships of his life was his lifelong friendship with Mr. A. Sivasailam (who passed away in 2011). Sivasailam Mama was a wealthy industrialist. But the gap in social status was an invisible element of their friendship. Sivasailam Mama was an extremely simple man who had absolutely no airs or pretensions. He exuded class in the truest, deepest sense of the word, treating my Thatha and all of us in the family with tremendous affection. And, my Thatha was too contented a man to ever have any serious thoughts about differences in financial status. As I mentioned earlier, they met up every day until my Thatha died. It was a charmingly predictable routine- Mama would come home to pick up my Thatha and they would drive to the Marina for a walk there. They would then go to his place for a light snack and he would drop my Thatha back home. They were completely in sync with each other’s thoughts, never having any serious conflicts whatsoever. Essentially, the story of their friendship was one of those too-good-to-be-true legends…except that it was true - every sentiment, every laugh and every tear. (In fact the shattered expression on Mama’s face at the hospital when my Thatha passed away is an even more difficult sight for me to forget than my grandma’s own cries of anguish. One had lost his best mate, the other her soul mate.)
22 years have passed by since that fateful Sunday morning. Thatha went to the boat club for a walk. He had popped in to the house of Mallika Aunty (Sivasailam Mama’s daughter) to say hello. And, he decided to test drive their new car by himself. Without realizing that one of the controls was already on, he pressed on the gas and rammed into the wall at considerable speed. His spleen got ruptured and by the time we got to Kaliappa Hospital, he was fading away. It was not my habit to hug him every time I left the house. But that morning, I don’t know why but before leaving the house, I stepped out of the car, sprinted upstairs and went to his room (where he was putting his shoes on, ahead of his walk) to give him a hug. That was the last time ever I saw him alive. Someone that was so full of life was now lying on the hospital bed lifeless. One of the liveliest chapters of my life felt like it was ended abruptly with the last page of the chapter being torn to shreds by a cruel quirk of fate. Or, so I thought until I had to go back to the same hospital three years later.
In 1997, one of my dearest friends Harish was undergoing an operation at the same hospital. When he mentioned the name of the hospital, a shiver ran down my spine. I felt extremely queasy about going to that place again. I was in a bit of a foul mood that day and sensing something was brewing in my mind, my Mom asked me about it. I opened up to her about how I felt completely uncomfortable going back to that hospital. She gave me a valuable piece of advice that really transformed my attitude towards my Thatha’s sudden passing away. She told me that if I truly idolized my grandpa, the best tribute that I could pay him would be to try and live life the way he did, to be the kind of friend he was, to invest in meaningful relationships and to give people the gift of pure emotions, unsullied by negativity or rancor. Following her advice, while I admit to taking gingerly steps into the hospital to visit my friend, just the sheer joy of talking to him ahead of the surgery, cracking jokes and wishing him well gave me a strangely soothing kind of closure. To this day, Harish remains one of my very best friends.
From that day on, I have continued to make sincere attempts at living life the way my Thatha did. Of course, I am acutely aware of my flaws as a person and I know that I have a long, long way to go to emulate my Thatha. I don’t know if I ever will be as great a friend or a husband or a father that he was. But I am trying continually and I derive immense satisfaction from that. Whenever I painstakingly make tea for anyone that visits my home, I think of how the taste and aroma of the tea might matter. But what matters more is the courtesy and warmth with which I serve it. Here, I think of the tea lover that my grandpa was but how much more he loved the friend that he shared his tea with. When I drive my car, I know that the car’s speed, look and feel and comfort all matter. But what matters even more is that I can enjoy a drive with my family while listening to Ilayaraja’s music. Here, I think of the car enthusiast that my Thatha was but how much more enthusiastic he was when he took us all for a long ride in his new Maruti 1000.
I may have never made a cup of tea for him or taken him for a ride in my car. But as I try to capture the spirit of my Thatha in my own everyday minutiae, what felt like a full stop on March 20, 1994 feels more like ellipses now…
Maybe the ‘chapter’ ended abruptly that day but the themes of the book were firmly established there.
Miss you a lot, Thatha. I am sure you miss me too, wherever you are.
Miss you a lot, Thatha. I am sure you miss me too, wherever you are.